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Szapszal, Seraja Markovich - Account of his Life



Seraja Szapszal was an adventurer and secularist who, at a time when religious learning was at a deplorable low among Eastern European Karaites, managed to get himself elected Chief Hakham of the Karaite community, first in Crimea then later in Poland. He was born in Chufut­Kale (Bakhchisarai), studied at St Petersburg University, where he completed Ph.D. studies in philology and Oriental languages, served as personal tutor to the Iranian Crown­Prince, Muhammad Ali, and, when he ascended the peacock­throne in 1907, Szapszal became a minister. He is, however, rumoured to have been at the same time a Russian spy. In 1911 he left Persia and became Chief Hakham of all the Crimean Karaite communities. From 1919 to 1927 he lived in Istanbul. 1927 ­ 1939 he served as the ecclesiastic head of the Karaites of Poland. He pushed in these years the National Karaite Movement to new extremes, denying all ties to Judaism, even on the religious level. Further, he tried to encourage the use of Karaimsk, as their national language. In 1941 he met the German authorities, after the invasion of Russia, and convinced them of the non­Jewish background of the Karaites. Under their rule he served as Hakham of Vilna and was used by them in 1942 for confrontations with Rabbanite scholars, such as Zelig Kalmanovich, on the subject of the racial roots of the Karaites. After the war he lived in Troki and Vilna, where he taught at the Soviet dominated Lithuanian Academy of Sciences. He was coauthor of a Karaim­Russian­Polish dictionary (published in 1974) and wrote articles on the Karaites of the Crimea. His "History of the Karaites" has not been published so far. Part of his collections and books are kept in a small museum in the old synagogue of Troki. 

Szapszal started the nonsense about Karaites believing in Jesus and Muhammad in an attempt to appeal to both the Christian authorities and the Muslim Crimean Tatars. In an interview with French journalist Abel Moreau, he commented on this:

...We call him Yeshuah haTzadik, this is the "Just."  For us, Christ did not modify the Old Testament.  On the contrary, he affirmed it.  He was opposed to the Pharisees, the falsifiers of the Law.  Moreover, the fundamental principles of the Bible, to love God above all is not understood by the Karaites and Christians in the same way.  Christ is for us a great prophet, but not the Messiah.  The Gospels are historical books, not the law.  Like the Jews, we wait for the coming of the Messiah.  When he finally does arrive, there will be universal peace on earth. (Revue Bleue June 6, 1936, pg. 392).